‘Hey everybody - this is barack’, wrote US President Barack Obama on the social networking space Reddit. ‘Just finished a great rally in Charlottesville, and am looking forward to your questions’.
Social media has hit the headlines again - this time as a means of facilitating democratic participation. In August Barack Obama signed up for an ‘Ask Me Anything’ (AMA) session on Reddit and answered 10 select questions from some 200,000 online participants. Reddit is an influential social media platform that claims to be 'challenging Twitter’s turf as a place for real-time updates and citizen journalism'. With over 43 million unique visitors as of September 2012, Reddit is only rising in popularity after Obama's high profile, and unexpected, visit.
Reddit seemed to provide the perfect place for Obama to get in touch with his constituents, creating the possibility for frank and open conversation. Participants could (in theory) ask Obama anything. Obama, for instance, responded to questions about money in politics, internet legislation and the US troop surge in Afghanistan. But the answers typed by the President did not meet the expectations of many and responses to the ‘Ask me Anything’ session have been mixed.
A recent article in the Guardian's 'Technology Blog' was followed by a stream of comments questioning the nature and productivity of the AMA session. For some it was nothing more than a publicity stunt. One commenter said: 'That's photographic evidence of him sitting at a laptop, nothing more'. Others were even more disenchanted with the chat, and listed their concerns: 'Guantanamo Bay, gun laws, NDAA, unaccountable drone warfare, military trials with no evidence (WTF)?'
Australian political figures use of social media has also come into the spotlight lately. The Lord Mayor of Melbourne Robert Doyle invited his constituents to ask him questions and voice their concerns about Melbourne via twitter and Facebook. His opening tweet stated: ‘Hello. I am Robert Doyle, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne. I’d love to chat directly about what interests we share and concerns you have about Melbourne’. Yet in the wake of Occupy Melbourne, and the heavy handed response to the protests, Cr Doyle was asked some difficult questions about the right to protest in Melbourne. Cr Doyle chose not to respond to the questions, later updating his Facebook page with the message ‘trolling and pro-occupy posts will not be tolerated’. In an OurSay online forum, Carl Scrase (the leader of the Melbourne Occupy movement) asked: ‘are campaigns like #AskDoyle creating a deeper form of democracy where politicians will be held to account’?
The possibility for open discussion via online spaces such as Facebook and Reddit is real, however the conditions for the discussion are just as they are in many other social situations – limited, programmed and controlled. The idea that politicians will be something other than politicians online is enticing and may even win votes, but it is not consistent with our everyday experience of politics. What is interesting about these political forays into social media is the debate they have provoked amongst readers/participants/commenters online and the questions that have been left unanswered. The questions and concerns of ordinary people linger in digital spaces and will generate conversations for as long as the archive is accessible.